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By Caron Carlson  |  Posted 2003-08-11 Print this article Print

Jain claims his company has a vested interest in selling accurate data but acknowledges that commercial data will never be 100 percent accurate. He said Intelius can deduce accuracy of the information it sells through artificial intelligence and other technologies.

Accuracy aside, information brokers have historically resisted selling data to federal law enforcement agencies to avoid the privacy rules that safeguard public-sector databases. Data that the government controls is subject to the Privacy Act of 1974, which gives individuals access to most personal information maintained by federal agencies and allows them to amend inaccurate records. Most commercial databases are not subject to such legal safeguards.

Now, however, the industry is moving away from the practice that warded off regulation, EPICs Hoofnagle said. "All these companies that stood behind this false promise are now selling information to the government," Hoofnagle said. "Theyre taking advantage of a lapse in public policy to enrich themselves to the detriment of society."

Left in the private sector, inaccurate data poses the threat of inconvenience, embarrassment and potential personal danger. Turned over to the state, it poses a bureaucratic nightmare.

The question of how data is used by the government is at the center of privacy and database security concerns. Evolving data mining technologies create new ways to manipulate, share and apply data, enabling information gathered for one purpose to be used for another.

Databases recording fishing licenses, pet licenses, land ownership, voting registration and credit reports were built for specific purposes and cannot be aggregated with certainty, experts say. This is one reason that the majority of companies in the information profession—mostly small businesses—avoid public- records research altogether, said Mary Ellen Bates, principal of Bates Information Services Inc., in Boulder, Colo.

"The problem with most public records is that they are not designed for cross-indexing," said Bates. "There is no common field."

In addition, data merchants increasingly collect and aggregate disparate data regardless of original intent, experts say.

"I dont think information companies much care whether this data is public record or not," said Robert Gellman, a privacy consultant in Washington. "The government is making greater use of records that are unregulated. These records are being used in much more serious ways."

Gellman, who—as chief counsel to the U.S. House subcommittee on government information for 17 years—was involved in the crafting of the Privacy Act of 1974, is critical of the industry for resisting new accuracy safeguards.

"The industry has opposed giving people correction rights," Gellman said. "Their answer [to inaccurate data] is: We dont care if its wrong."

Apparently cognizant of the privacy pitfalls, the administration championed the appointment of a chief privacy officer at the secretive Department of Homeland Security, a major buyer of private data. But the officer, Nualla OConnor Kelly, is the only individual among the 170,000 DHS employees who works on privacy and was not available to comment, a DHS spokeswoman said.

"Its human nature that we want to know everything about everyone else, and we dont want anybody to know anything about us," said Intelius Jain. "I was surprised to learn how much people knew about me."


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